miércoles, 8 de junio de 2011


One of the most striking features of the American Paradise of the 1980’s is the presence “of what Andrew Britton (…) has termed “Reaganite entertainment”” (Wood, 162). This entertainment plays a crucial role in spreading and consolidating the values of the patriarchal, capitalist and individualist system among the population. This fact, however, should not be completely surprising if one bears in mind Reagan’s explicit definition of politics as show business[1]. The most paradigmatic case of this is the television, analyzed by Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman argues that “is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining” (89). One possible explanation to understand why the population accepts this powerful spread of the philosophy of entertainment could be found in Wood’s suggestion in relation to the “overwhelming commercial success” of movies as Rocky, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and their sequels: namely, the “widespread desire for regression to infantilism” (165) among “a populace who wants to be constructed as mock children” (165). A similar movement towards an emptying of the political contents can be observed in the music scene: the decade opens in America with the murder of the pacifist militant John Lennon. Some of the main features of the decade, regarding this music scene, were the gradual disappearance of singer-songwriters, whose lyrics usually included political criticism, and the hegemony of the entertainment music, labeled as pop music, embodied by the phenomenon of Michael Jackson. Curiously enough, both the music and the cinematographic industries create male patriotic icons based on a model of masculinity linked with the restoration of the patriarchal system such as Rambo and Bruce Springsteen. This model, to a certain extent, embodies the updating of the character of the cowboy that Reagan himself had played earlier.
It is in this context that Home of The Brave, the film directed by Laurie Anderson that collects some of the performances of her Mister Heartbreak tour, reveals all the political dimension of an artistic product that challenges the dominant ideology of the American Paradise. Since it is not possible to develop an exhaustive analysis of Anderson’s work here, I will focus on one of the main political issues explored in some of the songs and performances of the film: the deconstruction of the binary oppositions and the condemnation of these oppositions as tools meant to perpetuate the oppression of the ruling classes.
Probably one of the best examples of that deconstruction is the opening section of the film, a performance called “0 and 1”[2], in which Anderson’s voice and physicality has become unmarked in terms of gender. This hybridity is complemented by the self-disempowering sentence “I’m not a mathematician” uttered before the development of the main thesis of the performance: that even though everyone in American society has become obsessed with being the number one, both ones and zeros are equally needed as the “building blocks of the modern computer age” –a metaphor of the America of that time. By creating an ungendered character that lacks the specific knowledge that he/she is supposed to need, Anderson deconstructs the premise that “only an expert” is qualified to talk about the American Paradise and shows that this premise is a fallacy designed to keep the privileges and the authority of the ruling classes[3]. Criticisms to binary oppositions, hyper masculine models and show business are also present on the song Smoke Rings, in which Anderson, parodying the spreading of the patriarchal values through entertaining television, invents a show quiz where the contestants have to decide “qué es más macho”[4] between objects like pineapples, knives, school buses and light bulbs. Also the myth of Paradise has a critical revision on the song Langue d’Amour in which the feminist view of the legend excludes the figure of God and suggests that the falling was a strategy of Adam to break the increasing friendship between Eve and the snake. The influence of the snake over Eve appears in Anderson’s song as based upon a more positive version of the idea of the spell: the storytelling. The male anxiety about ruling is embodied by Adam’s interference and by the fact that ultimately Eve’s version of the myth will be dismissed if favor of Adam’s, as we learn hearing Eve’s observation about her view of the legend: “And this is not a story my people tell. It is something I know myself”. Certainly, storytelling as a way to construct reality and establishing rules is nothing but the pre-technological step of the entertaining use of television to perpetuate the ideology and the power of the dominant classes I have already mentioned. Regarding this issue, Anderson also delivers a message against the acceptation, by the civil population, of the condition of passive audiences that the American Paradise has created for them by means of the show business. This idea can be found in the first sentence of her song Language is A Virus ("Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better") and it is also embodied by Anderson’s active use of American symbols, like the very title of her film, which comes from The Star Spangled Banner, the American National Anthem.[5] It is not surprising that, being critical both with the entertainment industry and with the idea of the expertise, Anderson delivers also a criticism against the crossing between these two fields: the celebrities. In the mentioned song Language is A Virus, she uses the image of the celebrity as to emphasize both the increasing individualism of the times and the impossibility of developing an American Paradise within this individualist system of values.

As her main political criticisms, Anderson seems to point the mentioned use of the entertainment industry for political reasons and the sexism of the dominant ideology. Her alternative Paradise appears to be based upon the active participation of all the members of the society into the political debates and, more importantly, upon the equality of those members. Even though the length and focus of this essay only allowed me to consider the issue of language in relation to politics, this issue deserves further analyses and it could be thought as the main theme of Home of The Brave. 

[1] “In 1966, Ronald Reagan used a different metaphor. “Politics”, he said, “is just like show business” (Postman, 128)
[2] A copy of all the lyrics of Anderson cited in this essay can be found on its Appendix.
[3] More recently, Anderson has composed a song called precisely Only an Expert in which she reflects about the relationship between expertise and power. Her stance on this issue is consistent with the statement she made about her own job: “No me considero una profesional de nada”
[4] Originally in Spanish in the song.
[5] Every stanza of this anthem ends with the line “O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave”.

jueves, 2 de junio de 2011


I put a spell on you ‘cause you’re mine
(Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)

Having described the operation of labeling as “foreign language” any criticism against the American Paradise, I would like to add that at the level of the biblical myth, this procedure stands for the identification of any criticism with the motive of the serpent and its speech, whose subtlety and power of seduction ended up with Adam and Eve’s fall. Consequently, ensuring a life in Paradise also means to understand the danger of seductive discourses against male authority: like the words of the serpent, those discourses should be considered as intrinsically evil, harmful spells that one needs to be protected against in order to avoid being expelled from Eden. Needless to say, this crossing between language and seduction as source of evil has been traditionally associated in our culture with women.
This symbolism is particularly relevant when analyzing the film “Stranger than Paradise” directed by Jim Jarmusch, in which the arrival of a young girl from Budapest (precisely called Eva) in New York is meant to deconstruct the American Paradise where her cousin (the Hungarian Bela, who has changed his name into Willie after moving to America), and Eddie, a friend of his, live. Ultimately, she is part of a confuse episode that ends up with Willie flying back to Budapest by mistake. This implies, symbolically, that Eva is partly responsible for the expulsion of Willie from Paradise. Framed by these inverted events (Eva’s arrival, Willie’s departure) the film shows how Eva’s questioning undermines the certitudes of the two friends about their Paradise: this situation is mirrored by a song she plays again and again on her radio cassette called “I put a spell on you”, as to emphasize the effect of Eva’s words over the two boys. Certainly, is not only Eva’s gender what makes her a destabilizing character for her cousin and his friend but also the fact of her being a foreigner –and, more significantly, one from a Soviet country. However, whereas her national identity is absolutely relevant to question the construction of the American capitalist system and urban landscape as a Paradise (as I will do later on), her gender identity is determinant to make evident the Paradise her cousin and his friend believe to live in as based upon male bonding. The two boys structure their friendship hierarchically upon the figure of a leader (Willie) that defines the strategies for economic survival (when to play cards, what horse to bet on) and a loyal follower (Eddie) that obeys the leader without questioning him. Even though their mutual resemblance –both physical and in terms of clothing- seems to expose the absurdity of this structural division, it is ultimately Eva, with her spell, the one who questions both Eddie’s obedience and Willie’s leadership. To a certain extent, the whole situation of Eddie obeying a male leader who provides the supplies and to whom Eddie resembles, replicates the relationship between Adam and God in Paradise[1] as well as Eva’s interference replicates the function of the biblical serpent and of Eve. Both in the Bible and in the film this male bonding precedes the appearance of the female character and finally gets damaged by it. Unlike the Bible, Jarmusch’s film shows some degree of disagreement among the two friends in relation to the female figure: whereas Eddie, attracted by her, wants to make Eva a full-fledged member of the group, Willie reads Eva as a potential rival regarding Eddie’s attention, and tries to disempower her. To do so, Willie places himself as the one who knows the way the American Paradise works and therefore as the person in charge of adapting Eva to America by correcting and instructing her.
It is through these corrections that the spectator perceives the irony and scepticism of Jarmusch’s view on the American Paradise. One example of that skepticism can be found in the following transcription from the scene in which Willie presents Eva to the TV dinner as the American way of eating:

Willie: You're sure you don't want a TV dinner?
Eva: Yes. I'm not hungry. Why is it called TV dinner?
Willie: Um... You're supposed to eat it while you watch TV. Television.
Eva: I know what a TV is. Where does that meat come from?
Willie: What do you mean?
Eva: Where does that meat come from?
Willie: I guess it comes from a cow.
Eva: From a cow? It doesn't even look like meat.
Willie: Eva, stop bugging me, will you? You know, this is the way we eat in America. I got my meat, I got my potatoes, I got my vegetables, I got my dessert, and I don't even have to wash the dishes.  
 In this dialogue, we notice not only Willie’s desire to turn Eva’s behavior into what he thinks the typical American behavior is, but also his will to be perceived as an American himself. The problematic relationship with nature I have pointed out regarding Cheever’s novel can also be found in Eva’s remark about the appearance of the meat. However, in the film, Eva’s comment and Willie’s answer have a double meaning: as they show the distance of the industrial subject in relation to nature, they also show the ignorance and lack of interest of this subject regarding the industrial processes that defines his way of living and its objects of consumption. Willie’s arguments rely upon the capitalist analysis of considering the goods in terms of their cost/benefit ratio: he lists the ingredients and points out the added value of not having to wash the dishes. Wherever his food comes from, what circumstances are involved in its processing of industrialization of it and at what cost, either for himself and for others, Willie does not care about all this.
This dialogue is also paradigmatic in terms of the issue of origin: whereas Eva keeps asking about the place the meet comes from, Willie dismisses the importance of its origin, which he only may guess, and focuses on the final product the meat has turned into. Willie’s view coincides with his interpretation of his own identity, as we can see in the first dialogue he has with Eva when she arrives to his apartment.

Eva: Hello. I'm Eva Molnar.
Willie: Yeah, no kidding.
Eva: Are you Bela Molnar?
Willie: No. I used to be. Call me Willie if you gotta call me something, all right?
Eva: (Speaks Hungarian)  
Willie: Oh! Don't speak Hungarian at all. Only English, all right, while you're here? Only English.

As it is for the Mayor in Oh, What a Paradise It Seems, the American Paradise is monolingual also for Willie. This standardization appears to be one of the main points in Jarmusch’s criticism, and it applies not only to the linguistics but to a more general view of the American Paradise. As the director points out:

“there’s a certain continuous tone in America, especially if you don’t have a lot of money. All the motels look alike within a certain price range. (...) Although landscapes change, you’re still going to the same 7-11 store. (...) And for that reason and for these characters, there is no paradise” (Hertzberg, 20).

Jarmusch’s black and white film reinforces the idea of a homogeneous urban landscape. The characters move from New York to Cleveland and then to Florida but all the places look equally devoid of charm and strangely similar one to another, as Eddie remarks[2]. Juan Suárez, in his books about Jim Jarmusch, relates this similarity to “what the French ethnographer Marc Augé has called non-places: transitional locations devoid of symbolic significance (…) and intended for passage or temporary use” (34). This explanation, however, does not give account of the critical inversion between the images of capitalism as Paradise and communism as its reverse America has been delivering for decades, as Jarmusch has argued in an interview[3].
            I would say, therefore, that Stranger than Paradise denies the existence of an American Paradise and relates the creation of this imaginary to the American upper classes. As for an alternative Paradise that Jarmusch may suggest, I think the film proves to be very sceptical about such degree of perfection. However, Jarmusch favours Eva’s resistance to male authority: her refusal to behave and dress according to the requirements of her cousin turns out to be the disruptive element that ultimately causes the exile of the God-like figure (Willie) from Paradise. Therefore, we can infer that Jarmusch’s alternative is not restoring a Paradise, whose structure has proved to be inherently discriminatory, but to suggest a new model that has not already been tested.


[1] “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him” (Gen. 1. 27)

[2] You know, it's funny... you come to someplace new, an'... and everything looks just the same.” (Stranger than Paradise)

[3] “one aspect of the story is that Eva is coming from Central Europe where- you know, in America we have a certain image that we’re given of what life is supposed to be like in Central Europe, and I wanted to reverse that, and apply it to America”. (Hertzberg, 35)

domingo, 29 de mayo de 2011


Knowing that Cheever’s first short story is entitled Expelled, one can be tempted to read his last novel Oh, What a Paradise It Seems as the symbolic return of the writer to the Garden of Eden. One example of this biographical kind of reading of John Cheever’s titles, largely based upon some personal facts of his life narrated on The Journals of John Cheever, is Rodrigo Fresán’s epilogue for the Spanish edition of Esto parece el paraíso, called Apuntes para una teoría del paraíso recuperado. In this text, Fresán suggests a parallelism between Cheever’s symbolic expulsion from Paradise and his “alcoholismo, (...) adicción a las pastillas, (...) desordenada vida sexual y (...) expulsion del hogar familiar” (134) to conclude that Oh, What a Paradise It Seems embodies the “final y feliz retorno al edén” (133-4) whose biographical correlation is Cheever’s return to his family and his literary recognition.[1] This interpretation, in which Cheever’s private life and novels are blended and described as “una odisea mística”, however tempting it could be, assumes a Paradise that shares the same values I have commented before (heterosexuality, personal success, ordered life, family) and, by reducing the issues of the novel to the spiritual journey of his author, it renders its political concerns insignificant, as if they were a mere illustration of Cheever’s soul’s last triumph. It is undeniable they are something much more relevant: even from a biographical perspective, Cheever’s definition of Oh, What a Paradise It Seems as “la primera novela ecológica” (Fresán, 140) and the fact that his first thoughts about the novel and his first impressions over Reagan’s election are developed in the same fragment of his journals[2] are a cue for it. Moreover, and despite the mythical atmosphere that surrounds the narrative[3], the book offers conclusive textual evidence about its political agenda and openly criticizes the militaristic and nationalistic paradigm of the 1980’s. In the following passage, Mr. Chisholm, the chemical expert Lemuel Sears has hired to investigate the pollution at Beasley’s Pond, is confronted by the mayor in a public audience and has his arguments rejected. The main objection to these arguments, as we will see, is that they do not seem American enough, which is to say, they appears to come from a place out of Paradise:

“You, Mr. Chisholm, have, I happen to know, never served in the armed forces of your great country and you have no understanding, of course, of our wish to raise a memorial to our patriotic dead. You would like, I know, to prove that our fill in Beasley’s Pond is comprised of leachates and contaminants. My father was an honest Yankee fisherman. He was a soldier. He was a patriot. He was a churchgoer. He was the husband of a contented, loving and happy wife and the father of seven healthy and successful children. If I spoke to him about leachates and contaminants he would tell me to speak English. ‘This is the United States of America, my son’, he would say, ‘and I want you to speak English.’ ‘Leachates’ and ‘contaminants’ sound like a foreign language, and to bring governmental interference into our improvements of Beasley’s Pond is like the work of a foreign government.”

The speech of the mayor both condenses a great deal of the American Paradise of the 1980’s I have already mentioned (patriarchal system, personal success, family, patriotism) and opposes to these values the figure of the foreigner as a threat. Interestingly, one of the key features to detect this foreign figure is the use of language. Ultimately, if language and discourses reflect ideologies, what it is implied here is that any type of criticism will “sound like a foreign language” and will be classified as promoting non-traditional American values and, therefore, as an enemy voice. The American Paradise, seems to say Cheever, expresses through its pride of being monolingual its dismissal of any criticism. As Ricardo Piglia wrote: “El Estado dice que quien no dice lo que todos dicen es incomprensible y está fuera de su época.” The violence of this rejection is both symbolical and physical (Chisholm, the ecologist, is killed right after the audience) and the failing of the legal action gives way to a sabotage as the last –and successful- attempt to preserve Beasley’s Pond. Interestingly, this sabotage is carried out by poisoning some sauce bottles in a supermarket, so that through the repetition of the same act by different agents (poisoning the pond by the government, poisoning the sauce by a citizen), Cheever shows how legality is structured as a way to deny not just the right of acting differently but also the right of acting exactly as the government but with other ideals, other Paradises in mind. Regarding this issue, I would say that the alternative Paradises that Cheever proposes in the book through his alter ego Lemuel Sears, however pastoral and mediated by the art they could seem[4], are not built upon a defense of a nostalgic contemplation of nature but, on the contrary, on the basis of an active engagement for a democratic integration with the environment. To Sears, Beasley’s Pond is not an idyllic image but the place where he ice skates “in the company of perhaps fifty men and women of all ages and (…) all walks of life” (1984: 91). Since ice-skating is seen by Sears as a distinctive feature of the Homo sapiens’ civilization, Cheever’s Paradise could be thought as a social construction where men and women should take part on the debate about their symbolic representation and should create strategies to protect what they perceive as cultural values. Therefore, what Cheever’s characters struggle to stop is not only the contamination of the water but also the governmental decision of changing the way society wants to represent itself and its values –from ice skating to a memorial of national wars- as a reflection of a deeper change. To some extent, Oh, What a Paradise It Seems suggests that the increasing cruelty and individualism may be read as a civilizatory step one has to actively refuse. One example of this civilizatory movement could be traced on the novel through the symbolic presence of dogs, whose taming coincides historically with the raising of agriculture that has largely defined our civilization. The millenary alliance seems to be broken by the new rules of mankind, and we move from “notice the number of dogs” (1984:3) living in the city to discover, first, a dead dog lying among the garbage in Beasley’s Pond and, later, that one of the characters (Sammy Salazzo) murders his own dog to save a few dollars. The irrational and destructive character of this new civilization, based upon the use of violence for economic purposes, seems both to mirror the American Paradise of 1980’s and to be one the central aspect of Cheever’s criticism against it.

(1st corrections: 30/05/2011)

[1] “Cheever no se acerca ni a frascos ni a botellas ni a cigarrillos, ha vuelto al santuario familiar en Ossining (...) y la hasta entonces tan desaforada como culposa faceta homosexual de su vida (...) se limita a una sentida y sentimental relación con el joven Max Zimmer (…). En el terreno profesional, Cheever ha alcanzado, por fin, la consagración universal (…). Sí, Cheever está de moda (…) Cheever es cool (…)”. (134-5)

[2] “El Times trae una nota sobre el depósito de residuos tóxicos del otro lado del río. Tal vez pueda utilizarlo. (…) Leo en The New York Review of Books que, al elegir a Reagan, el pueblo norteamericano ha votado por un pasado irrecuperable, un personaje que ya no existe…” (2004:467)

[3] Cheever opens and closes his novel highlighting its fictional character. The book starts with “This is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night” (1984:3) and it finishes “and as I said in the beginning, this is just a story meant to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night” (1984:100).  

[4] “The illusion of eternal purity the stream possessed, its music and the greenery of its banks, reminded Sears of pictures he had seen of paradise” (1984:84)